Sadly, this will be the last post of this blog. It has been two months since I left Japan and three weeks since I came back to Finland. During my trip in Southeast Asia I didn’t really have time to think about Japan because I was so excited and busy with other stuff. I talked a bit with other travelers about Japan but I never really had time to reflect on my time in Japan. When I came back to Finland my friends were eager to ask me about my experiences and trips in Japan and finally I’ve had some time to really reflect on.
For some reason it has been hard to explain what I experienced in Japan. Now that I think about my time in Japan I think that being a tourist in Japan would be a better role for me rather than being a sort of an immigrant in Japan. I loved the country but there were many things that drove me crazy. Below I’ve tried to express my truest feelings about my exchange period in Japan. Please, don’t take anything that you read here too seriously and remember that I really loved Japan but I want to be truly honest because this is probably the most intriguing challenge that I’ve ever faced.
I would divide “food” topic into to subtitles: cooking & going out to eat. The latter was much more fun and even though I don’t eat red or white meat it was ok. There seems to be a lot of restaurants that offer only meat or chicken dishes, e.g. yakiniku and yakitori, and some restaurants might not have any fish or vegetarian dishes but by checking the menu before entering you find easier right restaurants. You can easily find various dishes from iyakayas, and if you search in advance you can find vegetarian ramen which usually has meat and meat or fish broth. Sometimes finding food was pain in the *** but most of the time it went quite smoothly, and most of the food that I ate in restaurants was delicious.
Japanese food in general looks quite simple but it has mind-blowing flavours because of the different cooking techniques. If I understood correctly they don’t use much spices. My favourite Japanese dishes are sushi, okonomiyaki, rice, takoyaki, hot tofu, pickles and vegetarian ramen. I also liked hot sake a lot ;-)
Cooking in Japan.. from cooking point of view my first month in Japan was pretty awful. I just wanted to cry the first times I went to the supermarket because it was so overwhelming and I couldn’t find many familiar products. And I couldn’t read any of the labels because they were only in Japanese. After a while I found some products that I could use and not starve. Finding a breakfast become almost like a mission impossible. Granola was overly expensive and I couldn’t find flakes to make a porridge. There also weren’t real cheese for bread and the bread wasn’t good either (whitest bread I’ve ever seen). In the end I ate cereals with banana slices and sometimes with nuts, and sometimes I ate fried eggs. Now I might be ready for cereals but fried, scrambled or sunny-side-up eggs make me feel yuck because I also ate tons of them during my trip in Southeast Asia.
I could had learned about basic Japanese cooking on my own but I think it would had been fun to have like a master class of Japanese cuisine where we would had been taught how to cook Japanese everyday food.
I thought that students in every level have to work like crazy so I was a bit intimidated of the courses. Then I found out that the hardest school for Japanese is the middle school and also high school is still pretty tough time but going to university is like their “last free time” to enjoy life and take it easy. After university the students go to work life and get married and babies which will make life quite busy and challenging again.
So no the courses (at least thought in English) were not hard. The only courses that put pressure on me were the Japanese language classes. I had three courses (in total 6 Japanese credits / 12 ECTS) which made me sweat and almost cry. The teachers really made us study hard and in the end I don’t even know what was the grade of my final exam which is very annoying. The other courses that I had were very interesting but not very academic if I compare them with the courses that I’ve had in my university.
One of the great features of the Japanese university system is that they have club and circle activities in the universities. One can go and apply to the clubs and circles and e.g. play basketball, american football, baseball, ultimate or dance and do music and so on.
I think going to a Japanese university gave me one of the best seats to learn about the Japanese culture. There were so many “what is going on?” moments which taught me a lot about the differences between my country and Japan. One cultural feature of Japan is that one shouldn’t make oneself the center of attention and being quiet and calm is a valued virtue. This was very apparent in the classrooms. Practically NO ONE wanted to talk when the teacher asked a question in the class. Yes, this happens also in Finland but if the teacher addresses the question to someone usually that someone has to say something. Talking in groups was sometimes painful when no one wanted to talk. Of course the students might had been also shy to use English but this made me so sad and also a bit angry because I could had learnt so much more about the Japanese culture itself if more people would had spoken up. Also one very surprising thing was that only a minority actually spoke English. So it was very hard to communicate with others because my basic Japanese skills didn’t take me far….
Japan is definitely worth of seeing because everywhere you go there is something interesting and beautiful to see! Every city seems to have something to offer. Specially in Kyoto I loved the greenness and the surprising streets because there are thousands of temples waiting for you in every turn. I missed some modern art museums and other museums but according to guidebooks e.g. Tokyo is full of them.
Japan is so much full of surprising things that making a list would be boring so I just suggest you to GO there and experience the country yourself.
I went to Kyoto, Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe and Nara and I’d say that getting around is quite easy after you learn the logic. Using buses is very easy because they have English signs as well but trains and subways need more attentiveness. There are many different trains and subways that you should check the routes from maps carefully. People are very nice so if you ask someone they will help you even though they can’t speak English which is very sweet. :-)
The language is just cryptic! I thought in beforehand that it will be hard but OMG studying Japanese language has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Like I have mentioned before they have very complicated writing system which consists of three different character types: hiragana, katakana and kanji. The first two character types have less than 50 characters each and kanji has several thousand characters. During the semester I had to learn hiragana and katakana and around 150 kanji characters.. it seems like nothing but I really had to spent many hours to learn even these characters and now I am sure I have forgotten 95% of the characters.
I take this learning experience as a brain exercise and I am not sure if I want to continue studying Japanese.. It is not very motivating to learn a language that seems like a cryptic puzzle and specially with my memory I don’t think I could ever learn enough characters to really be able to read something. For reading a news paper you need to know at least 2000 kanji characters….
So thanks for the puzzle but I am done..
Ahh this is a topic that will never make me bored with Japanese culture! It is SO hard to even imagine how our Western culture differs from the Japanese culture. You really need to go there and experience it yourself. I knew that it would be very different but I never really knew what to expect.
If compared to my country (Finland) Japan seems to be almost like an opposite. We are an individual-centered society and Japan is a group-oriented society. We have quite high gender equality (rank 2 in World gender gap index) where as the situation in Japan (rank 105) is quite different. Then again there are few things where we are a bit similar but I think Japanese take it to extreme: we need our personal space (specially physically), we are helpful toward outsiders but becoming friends can take time and we are shy.
By all means I don’t patronize Japanese culture and I don’t want them to become westernized. But I want them to be a bit more open because their culture is so interesting and it would be so fascinating to see more. I also hope that the different pressures of different actors would be smaller because it seems that every actor e.g. a father, a mother, a child, a man and a woman has too big pressures to live life so that everyone wins. I wish everyone would have more alternatives and freedom to choose what they want to think or want to do.
I am extremely happy that I decided to go to live in Japan and that I decided to stay there. There was a point when I thought about going home because some things were too much. I couldn’t be my normal active and initiative self and that was the hardest part for me. I had to rely on locals and things didn’t progress as I am used to which made me almost break down. I am very passionate and energetic person in good and bad so I had to tone down myself which made my feelings ride a roller coaster – everyday. But I decided before I left to Japan to be open-minded and respect the Japanese culture as much as I am able to and I tried to hold that promise through my stay in Japan. I hope that I didn’t offend anyone while my inner battle and learning but I can say that I am truly happy that I spent five months in Japan. I got what I went to look for: new experiences in a totally new culture. Japan will always have a special place in my heart ♥